No Child Left Behind: Cure or Curse?


Elizabeth (Betsy) Donoghue


Learning Objectives:

  • The reader will be able to name the components of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).
  • The reader will be able to identify why some support NCLB.
  • The reader will be able to describe what factors are of concern in NCLB.
  • The reader will be able to identify what changes have been made to NCLB.


“No matter what your circumstance, no matter where you live, your school will be the path to promise of America. … [We are] challenging the soft bigotry of low expectations.We will leave no child behind.” — George W. Bush in his acceptance speech to the Republican National Convention, September 9, 2004 . (“Text of Bush Speech”, 2004)



“We must fix the failures of No Child Left Behind. We must provide the funding we were promised, give our states the resources they need and finally meet our commitment to special education.” — Barack Obama in his speech, “What’s Possible for Our Children,” May 28, 2008 (“Text of Obama Speech”,2008, para. 17)





The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was a major emphasis of the Bush Administration education policy. (“How to Fix”, 2007) The law was meant to hold schools accountable for student progress, and, in fact, to expect that all children will be able to perform at or above grade level in reading and math by the year 2014. (“Key Policy”, 2002; “How to Fix”, 2007)

Since the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), many educators and politicians have loudly expressed their disagreement with the law and its regulations, while others have lauded the accomplishments of successful schools around the country. The Obama administration is poised to begin implementing its agenda, which has been critical of aspects of the No Child Left Behind legislation. This paper will examine how NCLB hopes to cure America’s schools, what parts of NCLB are considered of concern to the schools and students, and what changes to NCLB some hope will help American students meet their potential.


Standards Set by No Child Left Behind

The 4 Pillars of No Child Left Behind

  • 1. Stronger accountability for results
  • 2. More freedom for states and communities
  • 3. Proven education methods
  • 4. More choices for parents.” (“Four Pillars”, 2004, para. 1) .


Schools are Accountable for Students’ Results In an effort to increase accountability, all states must have state standards for performance and test their students on these standards. Each state develops its own standards and tests. In addition, schools must track the performance of certain groups of students who have not performed as well in the past, (i.e. minority students, students in poverty, students with disabilities) and attempt to “close the achievement gap.” (“Four Pillars”, 2004, para. 1). The Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) towards the goals are monitored, and schools must meet certain improvements within a specific timeframe or major restructuring will be required, including “replacing administation and staff, reopen as a charter school, state takeover” (“Key Policy Letter”, 2002,in Restructuring (Year Four)).

Local Control NCLB allows states and communities to decide how to use federal funds. Funds can be funneled to teacher recruitment or training, or to school safety, for example. (“Four Pillars”, 2004).

Effective Teaching Methods Making instruction effective is the aim of the regulations on using teaching methods which are research-based and proven effective. (“Four Pillars”, 2004)

Alternatives for Families If, after several years, a school is not providing adequate progress under NCLB, parents are able to move their child to a well-performing school in their district. In addition, tutoring and extended educational opportunities will be available to low-income students who do not make adequate progress.(“Four Pillars”, 2004)

Support for NCLB

High Standards, Strict Regulations Making such sweeping change to the education system and holding all schools to such specific and high standards has ignited strong feelings in educators, politicians, and families. Diane Piche’, the Executive Director of Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, and a strong proponent of NCLB, believes that many schools have shown that children can reach these high standards, even when they have a large percentage of children in poverty(Pinche’,2007). Pinche’ believes that a “no-excuses approach to teaching the children of the poor” (Pinche’, 2007, para. 8) is the model for success. She also believes that removing funding from schools failing to reach their goals is necessary(Pinche’,2007).

Link to video of successful schools (“Success stories”, n.d.) [[1]]

Be Persistent: Federal Expectations Will Take Time As a civil rights lawyer, Pinche’ likens educational reform to civil rights reform (Pinche’, 2007). She is adamant that educational excellence for minority and poor children can only come from strict standards on a federal level(Pinche’, 2007). Pinche’ asserts that progress towards the goal is important and that persistence is necessary as it will take more time before the objectives are reached (Pinche’, 2007).

“Since when has leaving it all up to the states helped the poor and minorities achieve equality of opportunity? Not when it came to voting rights. … Not when it came to desegregating schools in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education. And certainly not now, when the achievement gaps based on race and class are as virulent as ever, with only modest signs of abatement.” (Pinche’, 2007, Common Ground section, para. 2)

Progress Made The U.S. Department of Education highlighted the accomplishments under NCLB in December of 2008(“Progress by our Schools”, 2008). They cited higher test scores, and improvements by children with disabilities and children for whom English is not their native language(“Progress by our Schools, 2008). They report that the “achievement gap is narrowing”(“Progress by our Schools”, 2008, para. 3) and that accountability testing is occurring in all schools. For example, “average reading scores for 4th-grade students with disabilities improved by 23 points between 2000 and 2007 [and] the achievement gap between white and African-American 8th graders narrowed by three points between 2003 – 2007” (“Progress by our Schools, 2008, para. 3 & 4).

Link to Table from Virginia Report Card (“Virginia Report Card”, n.d.) [[2]]


Virginia Report Card Percent Passing
“English Performance subgroup 2005 – 2006 2006 – 2007 2007 – 2008
white students 89 90 91
black students 73 76 78
Hispanic students 76 72 81
students with disabilities 64 62 67
students identified as disadvantaged 73 73 77
Mathematics Performance subgroup 2005 – 2006 2006 – 2007 2007 – 2008
white students 81 85 88
black students 62 66 73
Hispanic students 66 71 75
students with disabilities 53 58 65
students identified as disadvantaged 62 67 73″

(Virginia Report Card, 2008, Percent Passing)

Funding Funding for the changes needed under NCLB has been under discussion. Umstead reports that federal funding for NCLB would cover schools’ expenditures on assessments as long as schools do not choose the most expensive assessment methods (Umpstead, 2008).


Concerns about NCLB

Accountability Critics state that teachers are now teaching to the test, which may allow scores to improve at the cost of decreasing creativity in the classroom (Smyth, 2008). Others are concerned that time spent improving reading and math scores is robbing students of time to study science and the arts (“How to Fix, 2007). In fact, some are concerned that states are setting their test standards so low in order to have a larger percentage of students who pass (How to Fix”, 2007). For example, of Mississippi’s 4th graders, 89% passed the state reading test, but only 18% passed the national test (“How to Fix”, 2007). A national test standard has been proposed to truly bring all states up to par (“How to Fix”, 2007).

Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) Each state can determine what progess towards proficiency the groups in their school must make in order to meet the final NCLB goal of 100% grade level performance in 2014 (“Key Policy,” 2002). AYP measures have come under a great deal of fire. Many educators believe that the AYP system relies too heavily on punishment and that it is too easy to fail (“How to Fix”, 2007). Progress may have been made in some areas, but schools fail if even one measure is not met(“How to Fix, 2007). Many believe that factors outside of the school building, such as poverty and family support, are the cause of some students’ poor performance at school, and that these issues must be addressed if children are to succeed (Wallis, 2008).

Children with Disabilities Children with disabilities provide a unique challenge to school systems. Hardman and Dawson (2008) report that many educators question whether children with disabilities should be instructed and tested with the general school population. They cite individualized instructional methods needed for students with disabilities as being at odds with a standardized test(Hudson and Dawson, 2008). And many fear that it is an impossible goal to ever expect 100% of children to be reading and doing math on grade level (“How to Fix”, 2007).

Rural Schools Rural schools also find it challenging to meet NCLB standards, according to Mitchem, Kossar, and Ludlow (2006). They report that rural schools find it difficult to find staff who meet the NCLB requirements due to low populations and remote areas. Combine this difficulty with the requirements for special education teachers, and rural schools find themselves unable to meet NCLB standards. (Mitchem, Kossar, and Ludlow, 2006).

Funding Funding for the NCLB standards is of grave concern for many school systems. In fact, the National Education Association, along with several states, filed “a federal lawsuit … charging that the Department of Education has failed to provide dequate funding for the NO Child Left Behind initiative” (Dobbs, 2005, para. 1 ). Others are concerned about the lack of funding for remediation services to assist troubled schools (Pickert, 2008).

Changes made to NCLB

After several years of data from states, U.S. Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, announced three changes to NCLB to respond to areas of concern:

  • 1. “The Modified Academic Achievement Standards”(“Final Regulations”, 2008, title) provide a modified test for students with special needs who will be tested on grade level material, but in a less advanced fashion (“Final Regulations”, 2007).
  • 2. “The Growth Model” (“Secretary Spellings”, 2009, title) is a sophisticated statistical model that measures student progress for students who may not be up to grade level yet, but have made progress (“Secretary Spellings”, 2009).
  • 3. “Differentiated Accountability” (2008, title) allows schools that are closer to meeting their AYP goals to receive less stringent consequences than schools that are seriously behind (“Differentiated Accountability”, 2008).

What’s Next?

President Barack Obama has been very clear about his agenda for NCLB. He believes in increasing funding for the program, revising assessments, and allowing for more individuation(“Education Agenda” 2008). He also plans to “improve NCLB’s accountability system so that we are supporting schools that need improvement, rather than punishing them” (“Education Agenda”, 2008, para. 5).


“If we really want our children to become the great inventors and problem-solvers of tomorrow, our schools shouldn’t stifle innovation, they should let it thrive … by using visual arts, drama and music to help students master traditional subjects like English, science and math.” — Barack Obama in his speech, “What’s Possible for Our Children,” May 28, 2008 (“Full Text”, 2008, para. 15)



The No Child Left Behind legislation did target a grave concern abaout America’s education system. After years of testing, it is of great concern that some groups of students (minorities, low-income, students with disabilities) continue to have consistently lower achievement levels. However, major disagreements remain as to how to raise the achievement levels of these students, and, indeed, whether all students can achieve at grade level.

Early concerns about measuring schools’ success have led to changes in the NCLB regulations. NCLB now allows schools to measure student growth towards the goal, as well as to provide accommodations for students with disabilities. The Obama administration has targeted more funding to help struggling schools and encouraged more creativity in the classroom. Despite strong differences of opinion about the implementation of NCLB, all seem to agree that America’s children should be provided with an effective education which will lead them to be productive citizens in the 21st Century.



Differentiated Accountability: A more nuanced system to better target resources (2008). Retrieved on February 3, 2009 from http://ed.gov/nclb/accountability/differentiated/factsheet.pdf.

Dobbs, M. (2005, April 21). NEA, states challenge ‘No Child’ program. The Washington Post, p. A12. Retrieved on February 3, 2009 from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A4741-2005Apr20.html.

Education agenda of Obama administration (2008). Retrieved on January 27, 2009 from http://www.whitehouse.gov/agenda/education/ .

Final regulations on modified academic achievement standards (2007). Retrieved on January 27, 2009 from http://www.ed.gov/policy/speced/guid/modachieve-summary.html.

Four pillars of NCLB, (2004). Retrieved on January 27, 2009 from http://www.ed.gov/nclb/overview/intro/4pillars.html.

Full text of Obama’s education speech (2008, May 28). The Washington Post. Retrieved on January 27, 2009 from www.denverpost.com/news/ci-9405199.

Hardman, M.L., Dawson, S.(2008). The impact of federal public policy on curriculum and instruction for students with disabilities in the general classroom. Preventing School Failure, 52, 5-11.

How to fix No Child Left Behind (2007, May 24). TIME. Retrieved on January 27, 2009 from http://time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1625192-4,00.html.

Key policy letters signed by the education secretary or deputy secretary, (2002). Retrieved on January 27, 2009 from http://ed.gov/policy/elsec/guid/secletter/020724.html.

Mitchem, K., Kossar, K, Ludlow, B.L. (2006). Finite resources, increasing demands: rural children left behind? Rural Special Education Quarterly, 25, 13-23.

Pickert, K. (2008, December 17). Education Secretary: Arne Duncan. TIME.”” Retrieved on February 3, 2009, from http;//ww.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1863062_186_3058_1867011,00.html.

Pinche’, D. (2007). Basically a good model. Education Next, 4, 57-59.

Progress by our schools and the U.S. Department of Education, (2008). Retrieved on January 27, 2009 from http://www.ed.gov/nclb/accountability/results/trends/progress.html.

Secretary Spellings approves additional growth model pilots for 2008 – 2009 school year (2009). Retrieved on February 3, 2009 from http://www.ed.gov/news/pressreleases/2009/01/01082009a.html.

Smyth, T. S. (2008). Who is No Child Left Behind leaving behind? The Clearing House, 81, 133-137.

Success stories (n.d.) Retrieved on February 8, 2009 from http://www.ed.gov/nclb/overview/intro/reauth/successstories/index.html.

Text of Bush’s acceptance speech to Republican National Convention (2004, September 2). The Washington Post. Retrieved on January 27, 2009 from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A57466-2004Sep2.html.

Umpstead, R.R. (2008). No Child Left Behind Act: Is it an unfunded mandate or a promotion of federal educational ideals? Journal of Law and Education. Retrieved on February 3, 2009 from http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3994/is_200804/ai_n25418939/pg16.

Virginia Report Card (2008). Retrieved on February 3, 2009 from http://plpe.doe.virginia.gov/reportcard/report.do?division=All&SchoolName=All.

Wallis, C. (2008, June 8). No Child Left Behind: Doomed to fail? TIME. Retrieved on January 27, 2009 from http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1812758,00.html.


1. What does the No Child Left Behind Act expect of all students, by the year 2014?

  • a) Students will perform as well as possible in reading and math.
  • b) Students will perform at or above grade level in reading and math.
  • c) Students will perform better than last year in reading and math.
  • d) Students will perform better than last year’s students in reading and math.

2. Why does the U.S. Department of Education believe that the No Child Left Behind Act is working?

  • a) All states are testing their students.
  • b) Students with disabilities are improving their test scores.
  • c) The scores of minority students are gradually moving closer to the scores of white students.
  • d) All of the above.

3. The schools in a Virginia city have increased the amount of time that students spend on math and reading each day in order to meet NCLB standards. What concern do parents and educators have about the effect of NCLB on their school?

  • a) The school system does not have good math teachers.
  • b) The students will not be as good at math as students around the world.
  • c) The teachers give too much homework.
  • d) There is less time to study science and the arts.

4. The teachers in a Virginia county were concerned that their students with disabilities could not pass the state tests. What can the teachers do that will help the students pass the test, that would be allowed by the recent changes to the NCLB laws?

  • a) Give the students a less advanced grade level test.
  • b) Give the students a test for a lower grade level.
  • c) Give the students a test that includes only the material they have studied.
  • d) Give the students last year’s test.



1)b; 2)d; 3)d; 4)a



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